Dropbox under fire for 'DMCA takedown' of personal folders, but fears are vastly overblown

Dropbox under fire for 'DMCA takedown' of personal folders, but fears are vastly overblown

Summary: The online storage startup, also used by mid-size businesses and enterprise customers, like any other company has to comply with U.S. copyright law. But how it goes about it can be an entirely different matter.

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TOPICS: Storage, Cloud
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Dropbox's copyright policies and terms of service came under scrutiny by the online community over the weekend, after one of its business customers posted a screenshot that showed a file in his personal folder prevented from being shared under U.S. copyright law.

The reaction to the tweet was surprising to its poster, designer Darrell Whitelaw, who told ZDNet in an email: "The world is finding it to be much more interesting than I did."

Whitelaw, who uses the paid-for business version of the online storage service, said he "only posted the screenshot because I'd never seen it before."

The tweet was retweeted more than 2,900 times in less than 24 hours, and received more than 330 responses at the time of writing. Many aired their concerns, while others said they "may need to explore new options." 

Dropbox remains one of the most popular online cloud storage and business-based services available, rivalling Apple's iCloud, Microsoft's OneDrive, and enterprise-focused collaboration company Box. In the last couple of years, the company began to offer more for its burgeoning business customer base in order to monetize the service and expand further.

But the company has also faced its fair share of controversies and issues, from multiple outages to data breaches, and as a result, customer trust issues.

The most recent debacle began when Whitelaw generated a sharing link to one .MP4 video file stored in his Dropbox, which he then sent to a friend over a messaging service. 

But when the recipient clicked the link, the Dropbox web page warned the recipient: 

"Certain files in this folder can't be shared due to a takedown request in accordance with the DMCA."

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), to which the message was referring, allows rights holders to request sites and companies to take down content that it owns, in order to prevent the facilitation of illegal file-sharing.

Dropbox, as a U.S.-based company, must comply with DMCA, as must any other company operating in the U.S.

Dropbox reached out to Whitelaw in a tweet to explain the situation.

"Not a big deal to me, but apparently some care," he replied a short time later.

Whitelaw confirmed the video file was copyrighted — implying that it was not his — but was nevertheless surprised by the Dropbox warning, which he said he had never seen before. He also that the files in his Dropbox were not deleted or removed, or restricted from access, but the company are disabling the sharing functionality which can be used to facilitate illegal file-sharing.

Dropbox blocked the file from being shared "immediate[ly]," Whitelaw said.

Dropbox uses deduplication technology, allowing it to store only one copy of files or pieces of files that are the same. In such a case, Whitelaw would likely not have been the recipient of the DMCA complaint. If he stored the exact same file as someone who had received the complaint, his copy of the file would also be prevented from being shared.

"This isn't a Dropbox problem," Whitelaw told ZDNet. "[The company] is just following the laws laid out." 

It nevertheless raises the question, once again, about online storage and hosting, storing, and sharing copyrighted material. 

A Dropbox spokesperson told ZDNet via email that it "sometimes receive[s] notices to remove links on copyright grounds." These links are processed "according to the law and disable the identified link."

Dropbox confirmed it has an "an automated system that then prevents other users from sharing the identical material using another Dropbox link," which is conducted by comparing file hashes. 

The San Francisco, CA-based company did not explain where it receives the details of file hashes from when asked in a follow-up question. However, it's likely music and video industry groups that own the copyright to the files give these to Dropbox and other firms.

"We don't look at the files in your private folders and are committed to keeping your stuff safe," the spokesperson added.

Dropbox makes it clear on its website that users — the paid-for business users and the for-free consumer users — should only share files "that you have the legal right to share with others." 

It states:

"Dropbox has adopted a policy of terminating the accounts of users who repeatedly infringe copyright or whose accounts are subject to multiple infringement allegations. If you repeatedly share files that infringe others' copyrights, your account will be terminated."

The company also says that it can take further action, including the removal of content from its servers.

"Dropbox will take whatever action, in its sole discretion, it deems appropriate, including removal of the challenged content from the Site."

For the company, which is expected to make its stock market debut later this year, its bottom-line is simple: Owning a legal copy of a video, music file, or other document does not give users the right to share it — whether you pay for the service or not.

All in all, it was a weekend storm in a teacup. As for Dropbox? It's not the worst way to handle copyright requests under DMCA, but nevertheless unsettling for consumers and companies that use their Dropbox folders like a hard drive.

But as critics have repeatedly warned, the copyright system as is could lead to innocent users suffering if they share a file they have the rights to use, but has been wrongly reported as a DMCA violation.

Topics: Storage, Cloud

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13 comments
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  • How do they know?

    I guess the question I would be asking here, is how do Dropbox know he doesn't have the rights to share that file? Sure there has been a takedown notice on that file before, but that doesn't apply to the file, it applies to the entity sharing that file. Dropbox need to realise there is more than 1 country in the world, and the rest of the world have different companies, entities and laws dealing with this kind of thing.
    m00nh34d
    • Partially

      They get a hash for a version of a file that the copyright holder has the rights to. In the case of a film, they probably won't give the rights to anybody on DropBox to share it.

      Other countries? Then they should be using other, localized versions of the source material (E.g. film dubbed into the local language). If somebody is trying to share a copy of an American film in Spain (example take at random), for example, it doesn't matter that the local distributor doesn't mind if the Spanish version is being redistributed, but the owner of the copyright for the US version hasn't given his consent and it is illegal to distribute that copy outside the USA...

      What worries me more is accidental matches in hashing - false positives.
      wright_is
      • Other versions?

        There are markets for which no dubbing is being done. E.g. in the Netherlands, a lot of US TV series are presented in the original with subtitles. This necessarily means that snippets without any spoken text are practically identical.

        But the differences in copyright legislation cause even more problems. Consider the situation the other way round: Assume the company was German and required to comply with German laws. German copyright law does not recognize fair use. Yet being in the US, a user evidently has fair use rights. Should the German company be able to force the user to comply with German legislation, even though he is not in Germany?

        There are a lot of aspects of copyright that have not quite kept up with cloud storage, YouTube etc.
        hydroxide
        • Fair use

          in Germany there is fair use, you can make up to "around" 10 copies of any media, as long as you don't circumvent copy protection, for personal use or giving as gifts to friends.

          You cannot however share it online, because you cannot guarantee that less than 10 people will see it.
          wright_is
      • With a good algorithm, it's not a problem.

        "What worries me more is accidental matches in hashing - false positives."

        With a good algorithm, it's not a problem. With our best algorithms, you could assign hashes to every atom in the universe, and you'd still be unlikely to get a collision.
        CobraA1
  • As mentioned - it uses a deduplication function.

    If the file had already been loaded, and identified with a "copyright issue problem", then the deduplication pass would also identify the new "copy" as having a "copyright issue problem".

    So, change a pixel.
    jessepollard
  • Cloud Trust

    Just another reminder that using cloud storage means files are looked at analyzed. I hope projects like owncloud continue to develop.
    Roody15
  • Ah the pitfalls of "cloud storage".

    One day it's there...next day it isn't. Just like life itself...it's a crap-shoot.

    Hope folks had things backed up locally...otherwise...looks like you're S0L.
    IT_Fella
  • This Is Why I Would Never Trust Cloud Storage

    Once it is there your information is no longer secure and you have no expectation of privacy. I can imagine the hell that would come from accidentally putting a spreadsheet of confidential customer information out on a cloud service like Dropbox or Gdrive.
    revspaminator
  • SpiderOak and Wuala

    Better than Dropbox because all files are encrypted locally, and they can't decrypt them. Regardless of intent or anything else, a hosting provider shouldn't need to read or view your files for any reason.
    dbnick
  • Help For The Cloud ---- Encryption

    While we at www.nCryptedCloud.com do not condone the sharing of copyrighted content, we do suggest that people encrypt all files before uploading them to the cloud. It's easy, completely secure, and even dropbox can't see your content or access it.
    reedhallowell
  • Give GoodSync a Try

    I've been using this software to sync my computers. The cool part is that you sync without the cloud, so no storage fees, no DMCA worries, no security concerns. Been using it for four years now without any problems.
    jdcohen14
  • Quality vs Complexity vs Privacy vs "Free"

    Choice of cloud storage solutions really comes down to these four aspects:
    - Quality: dropbox is probably the best of the best when it comes down to a quality solution that Just Works
    - Complexity: There are solutions like ownCloud that allow you to run a dropbox-like replacement service on your own servers. But that's a lot more complexity than most people are interested in.
    - Privacy: If data isn't encrypted in transit (across the Internet) and at rest (in cloud storage disks) and if you aren't the only one with the encryption key, then you don't have data privacy
    - "Free": This is really the killer feature that catapulted dropbox into first place. Their freemium model backed up with a beneficial "refer-a-friend" system worked out very well for them.

    Unfortunately, you can't have all of the above. If you want privacy, you'll probably have to use a lessor quality solution and either run it yourself (e.g., ownCloud on your own server) or pay someone to do the same for you (e.g., www.xcapsa.com).
    agentofkaos